Religious Complexity in Northeastern South Asia

Northeastern South Asia Religion MapNortheastern South Asia has one of the world’s most complex religious environments, and such complexity is captured nicely in Scolbert08’s amazing map of world religions. To illustrate this, I have posted a detail from this map of this region, both in annotated and non-annotated form, along with a smaller version of the same map juxtaposed with other maps of the same general area.

The strongly Christian areas of far eastern India stand out clearly on Scolbert08’s map. Protestantism, represented mostly by the Presbyterian and Baptist churches, dominates here, but the state of Meghalaya also has an area of Roman Catholic plurality. Most of India’s northeastern Northeastern South Asia Religion Map AnnotatedChristians are of tribal background, and hence were never incorporated into the Hindu world. Manipur, which has a Hindu plurality, forms a religious exception in this part of India. In the early modern period, Manipur was a strong Hindu kingdom, supported by a powerful cavalry. But Hinduism is prevalent only in the state’s central plain, which also has a small zone of Islam, whereas the uplands of Manipur are dominated by Protestant Christians. The state as a whole is 46 percent Hindu, 34 percent Christian, and 9 percent Muslim.


Arunachal Pradesh in the far northeast, which China claims as “South Tibet,” is strikingly heterogeneous in terms of religion, as it is in regard to language, with some 30 to 50 separate ethnolinguistic groups. Some of the people of Arunachal Pradesh have converted Northeast India Mapsto Protestant Christianity, whereas others remain animists. Buddhism, of both the Theravada and Tibetan Mahayana branches, are also well represented in the state, as is Hinduism. The 2010 India census gives the following breakdown for Arunachal Pradesh: Christian: 418,732 (30.26%); Hindu: 401,876 (29.04%); Others (mostly Donyi-Polo): 362,553 (26.2%); Buddhist: 162,815 (11.76%); Muslim: 27,045 (1.9%); Sikh: 1,865 (0.1%); Jain: 216 (<0.1%). The Donyi-Polo category is particularly interesting, as it represents an effort to retain traditional beliefs and practices by transforming them into an organized religion. As explained in the Wikipedia:

Donyi-Polo (also Donyi-Poloism) is the designation given to the indigenous religions, of animistic and shamanic type, of the Tani and other Tibeto-Burman peoples of Arunachal Pradesh, in north-eastern India. The name “Donyi-Polo” means “Sun-Moon”, and was chosen for the religion in the process of its revitalisation and institutionalisation started in the 1970s in response to the coercive proselytization of Christianity and the possibility of absorption into Hinduism.

The religion has developed a congregational system, hymns to be sung composed in the Tani ritual language of shamans, a formalised philosophy-theology and iconography of the gods and temples.


A similar movement is underway in the tribal belt of the Chota Nagpur Plateau in the Indian state of Jharkhand, where the new/old faith of Sarnaism is gaining strength. As explained in a different Wikipedia article:

Sarnaism or Sarna (local languages: Sarna Dhorom, meaning “Religion of the Holy Woods”) defines the indigenous religions of the Adivasi populations of the states of Central-East India, such as the Munda, the Ho, the Santali, the Khuruk, and others. During, colonial rule it was subsumed as a folk form of Hinduism, in recent decades followers have started to develop an identity, and more recently even an organisation, distinct from Hinduism, similarly to other tribal religious movements such as Donyi-Polo or Sanamahism. …

Sarnaist followers have been organising protests and petitions to have their religion recognised by the government of India in census forms.[ In 2013 Sarnaist followers have organised a protest against use of indigenous imagery by Christians in order to attract converts.

Evidently, Christians in the Chota Nagpur region have been attracting converts in recent years. As the map shows, some parts of this region have clear Roman Catholic majorities. Catholicism has a long history in this area, dating back to the actions of Flemish Jesuit missionaries in the late 1800s. According to a recent article in ACN-USA News, “Catholic beliefs and practices have been important factors in drawing tribal peoples to the Catholic Church in north-east India, where Christianity has grown phenomenally.” I would, however, like to see more solid data on this phenomenon.


Other interesting and important features are also evident on Scolbert08’s map. One example is the fairly solid belt of Buddhism (Theravada) in the Chittagong Hills of southeastern Bangladesh. Although Buddhism is rarely associated with Bangladesh, up to a million Bangladeshis adhere to this faith. At one time, Buddhism was common if not prevalent over the area that now constitutes Bangladesh, but the religion survived only in the more remote upland tracks of the southeast. (Throughout northeastern South Asia, upland areas correlate with religious minorities.) Bangladesh also has some Hindu majority districts in the southwest, a pattern that generates political complications. As explained in a Wikipedia article:

Despite their dwindling numbers, Hindus [in Bangladesh] still yield considerable influence because of their geographical concentration in certain regions. They form a majority of the electorate in at least two parliamentary constituencies (Khulna-1 and Gopalganj-3) and account for more than 25% in at least another twenty. For this reason, they are often the deciding factor in parliamentary elections where victory margins can be extremely narrow. It is also frequently alleged that this is a prime reason for many Hindus being prevented from voting in elections, either through intimidating actual voters, or through exclusion in voter list revisions (e.g., see Daily Star, 4 January 2006).


As a final point, it is noteworthy that the Rohingya Muslim area of Burma (Myanmar) along the border with Bangladesh is not evident on the map. As most Rohingya have been denied citizenship in Burma, they are evidently not counted in enumerations of religious belief.

Insurgency, Sex, and Tribalism in Northeastern India

Map of language and religion in northeastern India

Map of language and religion in northeastern IndiaThe small Indian state of Tripura was until recently beleaguered by insurgency, much like its neighbors in northeastern India. South Asia Terrorism Portal lists one active terrorist/insurgent group, two proscribed groups, and twenty-two inactive ones. Most have championed indigenous claims to land and autonomy, opposing the Bengali migration that has transformed the state. The All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) seeks the expulsion of “all Bengali-speaking settlers settled in Tripura after 1956.” Other groups have demanded more, aiming for full independence. The ethnic and religious diversity of Tripura has contributed to the proliferation of insurgent bands. ATTF membership is supposedly 90 percent Hindu, whereas that of the rival National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) is largely Christian. Religious tensions have led to further splintering. The NLFT split in 2001 due to allegations of “forcible conversion of tribal cadres/civilians to Christianity” as well as the “lavish lifestyles led by the senior leadership.”

The indigenous peoples of Tripura do not monopolize political violence in the state. The Bengali community has given rise to its own militant group, the United Bengali Liberation Front (UBLF), currently considered inactive. Formed in 1999, the UBLF seems to have specialized in the targeted assassination of tribal leaders. Although not banned by India, it is proscribed by Tripura’s government. The UBLF is reported to have “raised funds from the Kolkata [Calcutta]-based business groups, dealing in tea, rubber, timber and construction work in Tripura,” and to have “extorted money from State government employees.”

Map of the states on northeastern IndiaUnlike the UBLF, the tribal insurgent groups of Tripura have not had access to the funds of Kolkata-based business concerns. They have turned instead to other sources of funding, some quite odious. In 2005, the BBC reported that the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) was peddling pornography, filming captured “tribal women, and some men.” Dubbed into Thai, Burmese, Bengali, and Hindi, the pornographic films were geared to a wide audience. Unedited stock footage shows “boys standing around with automatic rifles and revolvers pulling in girls.” The BBC report claims that sexual abuse has been rife in the NLFT. Insurgent groups active elsewhere in the region have also turned to commercial sex as a source of funding, although not without fierce local opposition. In Manipur, rebels have supposedly shot pornography producers in the legs.

The chronic unrest in northeastern India highlights several conceptual issues. To begin with, it shows the inadequacy of the basic vocabulary used to discuss the conflict. The preceding paragraphs have followed convention in labeling all of the indigenous peoples of Tipura as “tribal.” Little is gained, however, in using this wildly elastic category. In the Middle East and North Africa, a tribe is an aggregation of people who claim descent from a common ancestor. Tribes of this sort run parallel to the state; while usually co-opted by it, they occasionally take it over. Such groups need not be linguistically or religiously distinctive, even though they may band together in competition with other descent groups. In South and Southeast Asia, by contrast, a tribe is a distinctive ethno-linguistic group that has historically resisted the pull of the political center; in this context, the tribe is, historically speaking, the antithesis of the state. South and Southeast Asian tribes are now enveloped by modern countries, but such incorporation is imposed upon them, running counter to tribal institutions. Tribes of this sort are usually religiously distinct from their non-tribal neighbors.  Some still practice local forms of animism; others have recently converted to a world religion, most often Christianity. Most lack an indigenous heritage of literacy.

Both meanings of “tribal” cover a significant range of internal variation as well. In northeastern India, many so-called tribes fit the second definition reasonably well, but others do not. Several of the more important northeastern groups have been organized at the state level for hundreds of years. Relatively centralized kingdom emerged among the Tripuri of Tripura, the Meitei of Manipur, and others. These societies wrote in their own languages, often in their own scripts. They also largely embraced Hinduism hundreds of years ago, albeit as interpreted though their own cultural lenses. The Kingdom of Manipur is sometimes said to date back almost 2,000 years, and in the 1700s its formidable cavalry posed a major threat to Burma and other powerful kingdoms.

Why then are the Tripuri and Meitei considered tribal? In northeastern India, it turns out, the tribal category encompasses all ethnic groups that were historically peripheral to South Asian culture. Speaking Tibeto-Burman or Austro-Asiatic languages, the “tribes” of the region are historically and culturally linked to the peoples of upland Southeast Asia and what is now south-central China. Historically speaking, most of these groups were politically decentralized, but a few developed states of their own. What they have in common is not political and social organization, but rather distance from Indian norms, resentment against incorporation into India, and anger over the influx of outsiders.

Map of Northeastern IndiaNortheastern India, although it is substantially larger than Bangladesh, tends to be invisible in the international media, barely registering in the public imagination. Partly this is a product of political unrest itself, as access by journalists and others has been severely restricted. But it is also a product of the way we map the world—and of the structures of academic institutions. Young scholars wanting to study an interstitial place like Tripura or Manipur would have a difficult time, first finding funding for their studies, and then finding a place within the scholarly communities of South Asian or Southeast Asian studies. It is in these hidden ways that our unexamined geographical conventions get in the way of understanding the world.

Declining Violence In Northeastern India

On January 19, 2010, a grenade attack near the Manipur Police Chief’s residence in northeastern India critically injured three people. No one has yet claimed responsibility, and it would be risky to venture a guess, since for sheer diversity of insurgent groups it is hard to beat northeastern India. This remote and little-known area is divided into seven states. According to the website South Asian Terrorism Portal, the state of Manipur has 15 active or proscribed “terrorist/insurgent groups” (as well as 25 inactive organizations), while nearby Assam has 11, Meghalaya four, Nagaland and Tripura three each, and Mizoram two. No such groups are listed for Arunachal Pradesh, but it too has seen insurgent violence in recent years – and it is claimed in its entirety by China, greatly complicating Indo-Chinese relations. Insurgent groups in northeastern India have a strong tendency to divide and proliferate. The Kuki people of Manipur, for example, are “represented” by the Kuki Liberation Army, the Kuki National Army, the Kuki Liberation Front, and the United Kuki Liberation Front – with another nine Kuki insurgent groups currently listed as inactive.

Historically speaking, the uplands of northeastern India have closer cultural affiliations with Southeast Asia than with South Asia. They belong to India only because British imperial agents were determined to secure the vulnerable borderlands of their Indian empire. Local peoples tend to resent Indian authority, as well as the authority of the larger local ethnic groups that dominate the region’s seven states.

In most parts of the region violence has receded in recent years. Whereas Nagaland saw 154 insurgency-related deaths in 2007, the 2009 total was only 17; in Meghalaya, the death count dropped from 79 in 2003 to just 4 in 2009. Only in Manipur and Assam have body counts remained high (369 and 371, respectively, last year). Due to the lessened violence, India has recently opened parts of the northeast to tourism. For those interested in visiting the area, Northeast India Diary ( provides information on local attractions. On a trip to Meghalaya’s Balpakram National Park, it claims, one might see “elephants, wild buffaloes, gaur (Indian bison), sambar, barking deer, wild boar, slow loris, capped langur as well as predators such as tigers, leopards, clouded leopards and the rare golden cat.”

In Nagaland and Mizoram, some observers attribute the recent decline in fighting to peacemaking efforts by local church organizations. Owing to successful missionary activities during the colonial period, both states are now strongly Christian: more than 75 percent of the population of Nagaland is Baptist, whereas Mizoram is more than 90 percent Christian (mostly Presbyterian). Missionary schooling has led to high levels of education. Mizoram boasts India’s second highest literacy rate (91%), trailing only Kerala. Education, however, has not led to economic prosperity. Lack of infrastructure and insecurity are the major problems, but so too are the famines that occur every few decades after the synchronous flowering and then death of the state’s massive bamboo groves. When the bamboo flowers and seeds, rodent and insect populations explode; when the plants subsequently perish, rats and bugs invade fields and granaries. The most recent such famines occurred in 2006-2007.

The decline in violence in northeastern India is quite in contrast to the situation in east-central India, where a Maoist insurgency is gaining in strength. But that is a topic for a later post.